Our downland nature reserves at Malling Down and Southerham Farm sit on the fringes of the East Sussex county town of Lewes, with Malling Down dominating the easterly skyline of this quaint historic town.
Both sit within the chalk massif of the Lewes Downs and are part of the South Downs National Park. They share their space with Glyndbourne and Glynde estates and the Lewes Golf Course. The ancient hillfort of Mount Caburn is found on the south-easterly corner of the Lewes Downs, overlooking the main stretch of the South Downs separated by the River Ouse and surrounding wet meadows that extend down to the sea at Newhaven. This ancient hillfort is often highlighted by paragliders hanging in mid-air above its earth works.
Malling Down and Southerham Farm are exceptional examples of the rare chalk grassland habitat found across the South Downs. In serious decline, these endangered meadows are one of the country’s richest habitats floristically. Thin, infertile soils sitting over chalk produce amazing flower-rich grassland. The thin soils and porous chalk, a rock made up of millions of sea creatures laid down in a vast shallow ocean over millions of years, provide the key elements of this rich grassland. Poor in nutrients and dry as a desert in the summer, plants have adapted to the harsh conditions. No one plant has the vigour to outcompete its neighbour, with a huge range sitting cheek by jowl. Traditionally a square metre of turf can hold up to fifty different plants, with grass only making a small percentage of the mix. Alongside this plant diversity, one can find many butterflies and insects that rely on specific food plants and nectar from this wealth of flowering flora.
This landscape is the result of man’s influence over millennia. Grazing animals, mainly sheep, have been the prevalent farming practice across the South Downs since man first began farming in the south. This pastoral landscape evolved because of its thin soils, too shallow to successfully grow crops, scrub and tree cover were easily and quickly cleared and the grassland dominated. Reliance on man to maintain this grassland has never gone away. Without intervention, this rare habitat would be lost. With the decline in grazing in the mid twentieth century, the South Downs lost 95% of its chalk grassland. Trees and scrub quickly began to recolonise, reducing this habitat to steep, inaccessible Rabbit-grazed slopes and lone farms which continued to graze with sheep. We continue this historical management using our own livestock to maintain the grassland and hundreds of volunteer man hours are spent restoring lost grassland by clearing scrub and trees.
Southerham Farm is the quintessential downland landscape, soft rolling slopes following sinuous dry valleys. Many visitors enjoy the walk from Lewes to Glynde and through the year one can see and hear Ravens, Buzzards or if you’re lucky a Peregrine Falcon. In the spring and summer the nature reserve comes alive with flowering plants and insects. Spring starts with the soft yellow of Cowslips carpeting the slopes, followed by orchids such as Common Spotted and Fragrant. Our neighbour, the National Nature Reserve of Caburn, holds the largest colony of Burnt Orchids in the south. Thousands of tiny 7cm tall Burnt Orchids cover the southerly slopes. As summer progresses, flowering plants become more dominant and butterflies can be seen skipping from flower to flower. The yellow Horseshoe Vetch (food plant of the Adonis Blue butterfly) starts the summer off. The fluffy Kidney Vetch can be found next to the pale yellow Mouse-ear Hawkweeds, the white cotton wool flowers of Dropwort and russet colours of Salad Burnet flowers. The blues of the Field Scabious and knapweeds intersperse the yellows and whites. Look for the rare day-flying moth Scarce Forester sitting on a grass stem. By late July the deep blue of the Round-headed Rampion, known as the Pride of Sussex, covers the slopes. Near to the pathways on the southerly slopes one can look for the rare blue flowering Chalk Milkwort and the tiny Bastard-toadflax plant with its rare shield bug Canthophorus impressus which itself is currently found nowhere else in Sussex. Continuing through the site one can stop at the dew pond, a unique water feature of the South Downs, to look for the aquatic wildlife in the clear water, which has naturally found its way back. Or maybe enjoy the downland birds using this valuable watering hole, such as Linnet, Meadow Pipit or Skylark.